Tag Archives: Ozone Park

Bayside Cemetery, Mokom Sholom Cemetery & Acacia Cemetery

This 1872 map denotes the “Jews Cemetery,” extending from Liberty Ave to  Old South Rd (later Pitkin Ave). At this time the burial ground included Bayside and Mokom Sholom cemeteries; Acacia would be established in 1896 on the land identified here as the property of “D. Bergen.”

Beginning in the 1860s, cemetery corporations began to acquire tracts of land near Jamaica Bay to create what would become three Jewish cemeteries situated in today’s Ozone Park, Queens. Jointly, these cemeteries—Bayside Cemetery, Mokom Sholom Cemetery, and Acacia Cemetery—now cover close to 40 acres where an estimated 50,000 individuals have been interred. The adjoined burial grounds are located on flat terrain extending from 80th Street to 84th Street and from Liberty Avenue to Pitkin Avenue.

The cemeteries are separate, but their conterminous nature has frequently led to mix-ups in burial records, obituaries, and other accounts regarding which cemetery an individual was actually interred in. Newspaper reports and property records often confuse the cemeteries and their ownership as well. The three cemeteries also share a troubled record of poor stewardship, financial woes, chronic neglect and vandalism, and some of the most appalling acts of desecration ever to occur in New York City cemeteries.

Notices appeared in newspapers in 1861 (left) and 1864 (right) notifying the Jewish public of the opening of Bayside and Mokom Sholom cemeteries

Bayside  Cemetery (founded 1861), Mokom Sholom Cemetery (founded 1864), and Acacia Cemetery (founded 1896) each were established by independent corporations authorized by the state’s Rural Cemetery Act of 1847. The corporations acquired the cemetery land, which they then sold as sections or plots to hundreds of different Jewish burial societies, fraternal organizations, congregations, and other communal groups. Although family and individual plots also were sold, the majority of the cemeteries’ land was acquired by communal organizations who were responsible for the care and upkeep of their burial grounds.

An 1899 advertisement for cemetery plots at Acacia Cemetery

Nearly all the organizations that purchased burial grounds at the three cemeteries were defunct by the mid-20th century, and few made financial arrangements to fund ongoing maintenance of their plots. Compounding this situation, the managing corporations who originally established the cemeteries also had become defunct over time, and responsibility transferred to Jewish congregations that had existing relationships with the original corporations. These congregations, which numbered around a thousand worshippers during their heyday, dwindled to just a handful of active members and lacked the resources to maintain the cemeteries.

With insufficient resources for upkeep and monitoring of the burial grounds, the cemeteries deteriorated and became consistent targets for a wide range of intruders, including thrill-seeking teenagers, vandals, and thieves. Incidents were particularly rampant at Bayside and Mokom Sholom during the last decades of the 20th century (though Acacia also experienced occasional vandalism, incidences were not as frequent or severe).

David Jacobson, manager of Acacia and Mokom Sholom cemeteries, examines gravestones toppled by vandals in Sept 1991 (Daily News)

In 1973, the National Guard were called in to help with clean-up and repairs at Bayside Cemetery, after a four‐year siege of vandalism in which hundreds of tombstones were overturned or broken, mausoleums smashed, iron gates ripped open, and the cemetery office building looted and ransacked. Between 1976 and 1978, over 500 tombstones were overturned at Mokom Sholom Cemetery. In addition to the pervasive vandalism that continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the cemeteries were frequently preyed upon by professional thieves who stripped dozens of mausoleums of their bronze doors, stained-glass windows, and marble interiors.

A casket lies open at Bayside Cemetery after vandals struck in April 1994 (AP)

Acts of desecration at these cemeteries have gone far beyond vandalism and theft. In April 1981, a group of teenagers broke into a mausoleum at Mokom Sholom, pulled a coffin from its niche, smashed it open and drove a metal spike through the heart of the corpse. The perpetrators, who placed a dead cat above the body and a red candle nearby, were later caught while showing off Polaroid snapshots to a friend. In the twilight hours of Mother’s Day 1983, two young men viciously and methodically desecrated the grounds at Bayside Cemetery, smashing stained-glass windows and covering walls and tombstones with graffiti. In one mausoleum, they broke through a three-inch-thick marble floor and into the crypt of a girl buried there, at the age of three, in 1903. Dragging the tiny coffin out onto the roadway, they scattered the child’s remains, then took a rock and shattered the corpse’s skull. Another incident at Bayside was called “a pretty sick and perverted act” by Mayor Rudy Giuliani in June 1997 when “sickos” broke into a mausoleum and set fire to one of bodies, incinerating it so thoroughly that nothing remained but ashes.

A stone archway marks the entrance to one of the many communal burial plots at Bayside cemetery, May 2016 (Mary French)

These shocking episodes of vandalism and desecration have decreased in recent years, as steps were taken to secure the cemeteries and provide them with the attention they needed. Mokom Sholom and Acacia, which had been owned by Manhattan’s Congregation Darech Amuno and Pike Street Synagogue, respectively, were taken over by the state in the 1970s and placed in receivership; today both are administered by David Jacobson, who operates several of the city’s smaller Jewish burial grounds. Bayside Cemetery, which is owned by Congregation Shaare Zedek of Manhattan, has continued in a serious state of disrepair. Other than the efforts of dedicated volunteers who labored for years to restore dignity at Bayside, the cemetery had essentially been abandoned until recently. In 2017, Shaare Zedek reached an agreement with the state Attorney General’s office to dedicate $8 million dollars from the sale of their Upper West Side synagogue for long-term care of Bayside Cemetery; rehabilitation efforts began in 2018.

A view of Mokom Sholom Cemetery from Pitkin Ave, May 2016 (Mary French)

It’s unfortunate that the history of these cemeteries—and the stories of those interred within their grounds—has been overshadowed by a depressing saga of neglect and desecration. Family visitors are few, and there are no graves of famous individuals to attract much public interest in these burial grounds (though a US Congressman and a Titanic victim are interred at Bayside). Still, it’s worth remembering that Mokom Sholom means “place of peace” and Bayside was so named because various small streams leading in from nearby Jamaica Bay came up to its boundaries before modern development encroached. When wandering in the secluded urban wilderness of these cemeteries today, it’s easy to imagine this was once a lovely spot, where thousands of Jewish New Yorkers were laid to rest as the sea breezes swept in from Jamaica Bay.

Monuments stand amid colorful grasses and trees at Acacia Cemetery, May 2016. The elevated A train tracks, which run along the cemetery’s northern boundary, can be seen in the background (Mary French)
A 2018 aerial view of Bayside, Mokom Sholom and Acacia cemeteries

View more photos of Bayside Cemetery 

View more photos of Mokom Sholom Cemetery 

View more photos of Acacia Cemetery 

Sources: Dripps 1872 Map of Kings County, with parts of Westchester, Queens, New York & Richmond; The Leonard Manual of the Cemeteries of New York and Vicinity (1901), 9, 11-12; Fairchild Cemetery Manual (1910), 12, 17; “Notice,” Long Island Farmer Apr 2, 1861; “To the Jewish Public,” Jewish Messenger, Sep 18, 1861; “Notice,” Long Island Farmer, Feb 9, 1864; “Notice,” Jewish Messenger, May 6, 1864; “Proposed New Cemetery,” The Journal, Mar 21, 1896; “Cemetery Plots for Sale,” American Hebrew, Mar 10, 1899; “Restoring Dignity to Cemetery, Daily News, May 21, 1973; “Vandalism Is on the Increase in City’s Cemeteries,” NY Times, Dec 18, 1973; “NY State Takes Over Ozone Park Cemetery,” The Wave, Aug 20 1977; “Vandals Attack Cemetery,” Daily News, Dec 4 1978; “Corpse in Mausoleum Desecrated by Vandals,” NY Times, Apr 3, 1981; “In New York, Not Even the Dead are Safe,” Daily News Sunday Magazine, Aug 21, 1983; “Vandals Rock Jewish Cemeteries,” Daily News, Sep 9, 1991; “Cemetary[sic] Vandalized,” The Journal News, Apr 6, 1994; “3 Cemeteries are Haunted by Vandals,” NY Times, Nov 24, 1996; “An Affront To the Dead, And the Living, NY Times, Jun 13, 1997; “Resting—But Not in Peace,” Daily News, Oct 12, 1997; “Can a Catholic Guy Save this ‘Hellhole’ Jewish Cemetery?” Forward, Jun 10, 2018; Kroth v. Chebra Ukadisha, 105 Misc. 2d 904 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 1980); International Jewish Cemetery Project—Queens—Ozone Park; Congregation Shaare Zedek—Cemetery FAQs

Southside Burial Ground

A view of Southside Burial Ground, Nov 1927 (QBPL)

In a 1934 article in the Leader-Observer, a longtime resident of Ozone Park described the area’s old community burying ground, remnants of which still exist at present-day Redding Street, Albert Road, and 149th Avenue in Queens:

In a little-known and seldom-visited corner of Ozone Park is one of the oldest burying grounds in New York . . . 15 years ago I often walked out there with my son, who was then a youngster, and we would wander about, reading the inscriptions on the stones and listening to the music of the birds that made the place their home.  In those days there were only a very few houses near it . . . The plot even then had long been neglected, but without the usual sad results of neglect.  Without man to spoil, nature ran riot . . . in the summer time the whole place was a glorious profusion of violets, lilies of the valley, tiger lilies, and even roses.  To this little paradise had repaired the birds that had gradually been chased out of the more settled sections, so that in a few minutes the casual visitor would see ten or a dozen different varieties of brilliant multi-colored songsters . . . Taken all in all, it seemed to me then the most fitting resting place for those pioneers of old I had yet seen . . . The names on these ancient . . . stones were almost all Dutch, names that today are well known.  Vanderveers lay there, and Van Wycks along with many others who gave meaning to the wilderness that once was this part of the country.

Today all is changed.  I walked out there a few days ago, for the first time in about 10 years, and I was shocked.  Since that time the Crossbay boulevard has been laid; a big cash-and-carry supermarket stands nearby; a development company has hedged in the little burying ground with raucously new brick houses.  Where the birds used to sing by the old pipe line, autos now roar by in an unending stream on the Sunrise highway. But what shocked me most was the condition of the cemetery itself.  The birds are gone, and the flowers.  The shrubbery that once gave the moss-covered stones a decent privacy are now but a bedraggled collection of broken weeds.  Even the stones are gone.  Where they went I do not know . . . Of the several hundred monuments that were standing ten years ago, not more than a dozen remain . . .

The Southside Burial Ground in 1849, situated near the junction of the Old South Road and the Road to Jamaica Bay
The Southside Burial Ground in 1919 (Queens Topographical Bureau).

This community cemetery was set aside as a burying ground about 1680 and was situated at the junction of two colonial highways—the Old South Road that crossed southern Queens from east to west, and the Road to Jamaica Bay, which later became Woodhaven Boulevard. Each neighboring family, among them the Ryders, Van Wicklens, Durlands, and Stoothoffs, was allotted a share in the burial ground at the time it was established. Known today as the Southside Burial Ground, the old graveyard has been referred to by a number of names over the years, including the Van Wicklen Cemetery, Aqueduct Cemetery, and Homestead Cemetery. The half-acre burial ground was used and remained intact until the housing boom and street construction that began in the 1920s destroyed much of it.  About half of the cemetery was lost when 149th Avenue was extended through the southern portion of the site, and most of the monuments had disappeared by the 1930s.

In December 1935, Long Island Daily Press reporter Sarah Wilford called the Southside cemetery the “most desolate in Queens,” after workmen chopped down most of the trees at the site and burned it over to clear it of vegetation.  What remained of the cemetery gradually became a dumping ground.  Concerned citizens of the area fought for decades to protect and preserve the burial ground, and today the NYC Parks department manages the site.  Four gravestones still exist in the northern section of the old graveyard, which remains on the east side of Redding Street, between Albert Road and 149th Avenue.  A remnant of the southern portion of the cemetery also exists in the park on the other side of 149th Avenue; although no stones are present in this section, it is distinguished by a chain-link fence that separates it from the adjacent ball field.

The “desolate” Southside Burial Ground in Jan 1936, after it was burned to clear it of vegetation (QBPL)
The Southside Burial Ground today (NYCityMap)
Tombstones in the northern section of the Southside Burial Ground. (Mary French)
Remnant of the southern portion of the Southside Burial Ground, adjacent to Vito Locascio Field (formerly Loring Field). (Mary French)

Sources: Description of Private and Family Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens (Powell & Meigs 1932), 54-57; Sidney’sMap of Twelve Miles around New-York, 1849; The Story of Woodhaven and Ozone Park (Seyfried 1985), 119; “Ozone Park Burial Ground Has Rich History,” Leader-Observer, Jan 4, 1996; “LIer Fights to Get Cemetery Removed from City Tax Rolls,” LI Press, July 2, 1972; “Historic Tombstones Found,” The Forum, Nov. 23, 1985; “South Side Cemetery Most Desolate in Queens,” LI Daily Press, Dec 12, 1935; “Crossbay Blvd Wipes Out Old Burying Ground,” Leader-Observer, Nov. 22, 1934; NYCityMap.